There will be fewer paraprofessionals working in Riverside Elementary School District 96 next year. Last week the District 96 school board voted in a special meeting to “honorably discharge” 27 of the district’s 47 paraprofessionals. 

Some, but not all, of the paraprofessionals, commonly called parapros, will be hired back during the summer.

“We are looking to hire some back,” said District 96 Superintendent Sharma-Lewis said. “We cannot make a final determination until all [Individual Education Plan] meetings and annual reviews are conducted as well as registration is completed.”

Paraprofessionals in District 96 primarily work as classroom aides and as one-to-one student aides for some special education students.

Discharged at the end of the school year were all probationary paraprofessionals who have worked for the district for less than two full years and all part-time paraprofessionals.

Sharma-Lewis said that she would like all of the district’s parapros to be full-time employees.

“Because we want the have instructional quality and consistency in our programming as well as equality for professional development, we want to have the paraprofessionals be [full time],” Sharma-Lewis said.

There is also a sense among administrators and the school board that the district has had too many parapros in the past.

“We were just overstaffed,” said school board member Randy Brockway. “Eighteen percent of our student population is special ed; the norm is about 10 percent. It’s about saving money and better serving students.”

Sharma-Lewis said in the past District 96 parapros were often assigned to students without written documentation. 

“It was maybe by the request of a parent or by the request of the special ed director,” Sharma-Lewis said. 

Sharma-Lewis said that now the district will be trying to get students to be as independent as possible.

“We are really looking a promoting the least restrictive environment … and then using data and a form to assign paraprofessionals to students,” Sharma-Lewis said. “Having an adult parapro assigned to them all day or certain parts of the day doesn’t necessarily promote independence. 

“So if there is a specific need … then we will document that and determine how long throughout the day they’re going to need somebody.”

Some parents of special education students have noticed this year that Individual Education Plans (IEPs) are now being written in a vaguer manner and don’t always require an aide that a student had in the past. Some say the district is trying to convince many parents that their children don’t need an aide.

Mary Komperda, a parent active in the Riverside Area Inclusion Network (RAIN), an organization comprising parents of special education students, is uneasy about the district cutting parapros. Komperda said that the district’s teachers are not adequately trained to deal with students who have a variety of learning styles and issues without the help of parapros.

“I think we’re prematurely doing this, and I think that there is going to be a lot of kids that suffer,” Komperda said. “I think the schools are not ready for that; I think our teachers are not ready for that.”

Many of the district’s parapros are certified teachers, but Komperda also said she doesn’t think that parapros are currently being used well in the district and that many lack substantial training in dealing with special education students.

“I support my babysitters more than they support paraprofessionals,” Komperda said.

At one school last week, a number of parapros being discharged shed tears, according to a teacher who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.

The teacher said that the district’s paraprofessionals have been a big asset to the district.

“They’re so great,” the teacher said. “They have a lot to do with how successful we’ve been. A lot of them are certified teachers and we’re lucky to have them.”

The teacher said that the new central administration has cracked down this year, insisting that classroom aides work directly with students, often in small groups. 

Teachers are no longer allowed to use parapros for things like making copies.

“More than anything, this administration has used [parapros] really well,” the teacher said.

Paraprofessionals are paid an hourly wage. For the 2013-14 school year, first-year parapros in District 96 earned $17.12 an hour. Those with five years’ experience made $20.37 an hour. In 2014-15, first year parapros, if there are any, are scheduled to make $17.68 an hour, while five-year parapros will make $21.03 an hour.

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